Reviews ManchesterNational Published 31 October 2019

Review: Light Falls at Royal Exchange Manchester

24 October - 16 November

A storm about to break: James Varney on the intricate relationships in Simon Stephens’ melancholic drama, which marks the end of Sarah Frankcom’s tenure at the Royal Exchange.

James Varney
Light Falls at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Design, Naomi Dawson; lighting design, Jack Knowles. Photo: Mark Douet.

Light Falls at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Design, Naomi Dawson; lighting design, Jack Knowles. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

The structure of Light Falls is like a gasping organ. For act one it swells and opens out. We meet Christine at a tight, close moment as she dies of an aneurysm inside her skull (painless, apparently). From the opening monologue the play separates into strands, following her husband, son and two daughters, who are scattered across the north of England. Christine disintegrates, and populates the other characters as a side-character (usually drunk (Christine is an alcoholic (in her dying moments she was reaching for a bottle of vodka in a co-op supermarket (she had managed nine months sober at that point, though (its not clear what triggered a relapse, though it may have been discovering her husband, Bernard’s infidelity))))).

In the scenes which follow, the characters struggle with trying to fix their own futures. Jess insists Michael shouldn’t fall in love with her because she is bad for people. Ashe turns away Joe when he suggests their infant Son should live with his Grandmother instead. Bernard is confronted with the idea he is not as attractive as he thinks he is, that he is in denial about the practicability of eating constantly. Steven is fatalistic, convinced his boyfriend Andy can’t be interested in him anymore.

As a family, they are obsessive in the number of promises they demand of the people around them. Promises to never leave them, to not change, to not attempt suicide again. They are a collection of unmoored buoys – they defer constancy whenever it attempts to appear. They hate themselves and do not believe they are worthy of love.

There’s a lot of shagging, as well. Come to think of it, there’s not a single character who hasn’t shagged another one. Jess shags Michael; Steven shags Andy; Ashe has shagged Joe; Bernard shags Michaela and Emma, and presumably has shagged Christine, his wife. Shagging, in Light Falls, is an impulse or comment toward the heteronormative couple-bond. Always it is associated with the future, with the creation of a lineage, of children, of anchoring one to a place. Andy can’t shag in the churchyard of Durham Cathedral because ‘the Venerable Bede is in there’ – he wilts in the presence of a history greater than the one him and Steven might create. Jess warms to Michael, in part, after discovering he has a son – after this they make frequent references to him because he is a fixed part of the future, like gold dust to Jess’s family who have had a chaotic blank for a future for decades.

After seeing off Joe, Ashe is visited by the ghost of Christine, like in those myths about WWI soldiers visiting their loved ones at the moment of death. Christine becomes Grandma in this scene – a mother reassuring her Daughter/now Mother, that ‘it gets easier’. It is most important for Christine to visit Ashe, because Ashe is the closest to reproduction – she is further along in the process of meeting a person, shagging them and raising a new part of the future. Ashe and Christine talk about the future. Later, the play ends the moment Christine suggests she is about to talk about her own Mother’s past.

Act two the organ collapses.

There are a few auxiliary scenes but the fix is the funeral which brings all the family into the same room.

//the review starts here//

The central trauma is not Christine’s death, but her alcoholism. Christine’s addiction and the veil it cast over her loved ones seems to be the driver of decay in everyone’s lives. Her nine months of recovery are a small hope. Her children speculate at the funeral that maybe it was the stopping which killed her. With her death, Christine ‘moves from first person to third person.’ – Finally she can be talked about. The family laugh about how much she would have enjoyed the amount of wine at the wake. Christine is no longer amorphous, spread everywhere; she is a body in a box, punctuated. She’s not a weight about to fall, she has fallen already, is resting now.

The first act of this play is an illusion. At the moment of Christine’s death it rains across the entire country, beneath a cloudless sky. Christine’s ghost travels across the north. There is a weight like a storm about to break. By the end it’s like slight of hand; suddenly the play is a small one. The storm broke at the end of act one, I suppose. It can only break once, maybe.

Light Falls’s set is wood panels, rectangles about twice as long as they are wide. It makes a poetic sort of sense to assume they are pine or some kind of coffin material. By the end of the play, everyone has returned to the box they were in all along. Before now, I don’t know what the set has been. A shape to occupy – something solid. The cast clamber on it, curl up on deep steps, like children playing in a church hall.

Finally, here, at Christine’s funeral, like they defer change, they defer confrontation. They all just tentatively get along. Which is what happens I suppose.

//???//

Light Falls sees people drawn together, toward the family unit. Bernard and Ashe both reject the formulations which would drag them away from it, cause them to change their alliances. Bernard’s polygamous affair only functions within the context of his affair; he won’t see Michaela and Emma again. Ashe cannot join Joe’s family, regardless of what her family has done and said to her.

As Christine explodes, and contracts, she exposes the ties between her family that provide them the only constant they have known.

//ekcho// (this isn’t part of the review don’t read it)

Jarvis Cocker’s song, ‘Hymn of the North’ unsettles me. Obviously it’s devised to slot into the wider themes of echoes, ghosts and heritage, place. Its role through the script is to weave and echo like a parasitic worm, occasionally emerging out the body of one or all of the performers onstage. It contains the normal northern platitudes of ‘oh our Mums do the washing up and our Dads go to the pub’ as if no one does that anywhere else.

Comfortably inside the familiar hollow warmth, too, are the lines ‘Don’t forget your northern blood/ No never forget your northern blood’. I am sceptical of appeals to blood at the best of times and in this country, at this time I am extra skeptical. I don’t resent the conceptualisation of ‘the North’ as a geographical region, but it easily becomes shorthand for ‘where people are right and good’. ‘northern blood’ is an image which implies non-northern blood, non-northern bodies, people who biologically don’t fit. It leans on a border. Northern-ness is all well and good until it becomes a facsimile for Nationalism. On my way home, I see a poster celebratingpopular Mancunian Fascist, Morrissey. I wasn’t looking for it.

Light Falls runs at Royal Exchange Theatre until 16th November. More info here.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

Review: Light Falls at Royal Exchange Manchester Show Info


Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Written by Simon Stephens

Cast includes Mercedes Assad, Freddie Gaminara, Carla Henry, Rebecca Manley, David Moorst, Tachia Newall, Katie West, Witney White

Original Music Jarvis Cocker

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